Students in Jonathan Waitt’s computer numeric control (CNC) machining class at Houston, Texas’ School of Automotive Machinists & Technology (SAM Tech) roll up their sleeves every day and dig into computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) and CNC machining courses designed to make them masters of precision components and high-performance engine blocks. Their racecars, primarily quarter-mile drag race cars built by the school’s students, have gained national recognition. One such pavement-eating beast, a high-powered Chevy dragster, was featured on the CBS Sports Network. In six seasons, Team SAM Tech has won the Chevrolet Performance LSX Challenge Series ERL All-Motor Class Championship five times.
The school was not always a school. It began as an automotive machine shop (Northwest Engine & Supply) known for building high-performance engines that helped take titles and win trophies. Owned by Judson (Jud) and Linda Massingill, the shop had trained people to be automotive machinists. Many of these machinists left to open their own shops, resulting in a production slowdown at Northwest. To compensate, the Massingills began taking on students as apprentices, teaching them machining. The apprenticeship program led to the founding of the SAM Tech, a school accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC) and approved by the U.S. Department of Education. It has twice been named a National School of Excellence.
In the late 1970s, Linda says, “We built high-end race engines for circle track racing, SCCA, boat racing, and more.”
Instead of constantly being on call and running himself ragged with on-site repair visits for teams, Jud taught his clients to do some of their own maintenance.
“He would teach them to check the springs or valves, or test the compression, just minor things to diagnose,” Linda adds.
Eventually, one of Northwest Engine’s prized employees left the business and Jud was lamenting about it to Linda.
“I told Jud that he’s actually a teacher, because he had taught so many people over the years. I asked ‘Why don’t we start a school?’ and he said to go right ahead!”
Never one to be afraid of a challenge, Linda made calls, researched requirements, and founded the school in 1985. Today, SAM Tech offers CNC machining, engine-block machining, cylinder-head machining, electronic fuel injection (EIF) tuning, and motorsports welding classes. Students may also take additional courses leading to an Associate’s Degree of Applied Science.
Among those opting for the associate’s degree, many have gone on to a four-year college or university to pursue a career in mechanical engineering.
Waitt began his career as a student at the school, became an assistant instructor after graduation, and quickly advanced to instructor.
“We have excellent facilities and equipment for teaching CNC machining, including multi-axis Haas CNC horizontal and vertical machining centers and a state-of-the-art Faro coordinate measurement machine (CMM). We also have 19 seats of Mastercam in our CAD/CAM lab, letting me accommodate students in the morning and afternoon classes,” Waitt says.
The CNC machining course takes seven months to complete and begins with “descriptions of how G-codes work and how to write them by hand to create a program,” Waitt says. “Once they have a handle on that, we move into Mastercam, starting with basic 2D and simple wireframe design. Then we progress to more advanced modeling, solid extrusions, and blocking out surfaces. Once they have that under their belt, we move into toolpaths, starting with simple drilling and face milling and then on to high-speed operations. Toward the end of the course we complete their CAD/CAM training with advanced 5-axis operations such as those used here for machining cylinder heads.”
In addition to classroom instruction, all students enrolled in CNC machining are required to take the Mastercam University (www.mastercamu.com) CAD/CAM courses as homework assignments. Mastercam University provides certificates of achievement as students pass a series of basic and advanced exams.
“We make sure that all graduates are Mastercam CAD/CAM certified, as well as earning our own CNC machining certification,” Waitt explains.
Students entering the school range from 18-year-old high school graduates to those in their 50s and 60s, many of whom have established machining or racing team backgrounds and want to advance their skills.
“They come to us from all over the world, not just the U.S.” Waitt adds. “We currently have students from as far away as Iceland, Australia, and South Korea. Our reputation for building outstanding high-performance engines is the best public relations we could have for attracting a student body. One of our cars – a naturally aspirated 1999 Camaro – puts out 1,085hp and completes the quarter-mile in 8.01sec., reaching a speed of 161mph.”
A lot of prospective students must salivate at the thought of having a hand in that caliber of performance.
“For the basic projects,” Waitt says, “we have the students program and machine various hand tools used in building our engines, such as wrenches and a dial bridge that includes a dial indicator used for seeing how deep a piston is sitting inside the bore of a cylinder and other measurements. On top of that, we’ll produce many of the parts needed for the school’s racecars, as simple as brackets and as complex as cylinder heads.”
Several of the students expressed an interest in building a car for Hot Rod Magazine’s Power Tour, an event that showcases the high-performance capabilities of racecars from around the country.
“There had been a 1957 Chevy sitting in the school’s garage for the past 20 years and it was pretty bare bones,” Waitt says. “So, the students pitched in and turned it into a contending muscle car.”
A General Motors 6.2L V-8 LS3 engine makes 530hp at 6,500rpm.
“We built the dual-throttle body intake manifold as a project in our CNC machining course,” Waitt enthuses. “This was a good multi-axis part for both Mastercam and our CNC machine tools. The CAM portion of the software has always been cutting edge for programming all the toolpaths, but now I’ve seen the CAD portion for designing components really come into its own. We use Mastercam for designing and programming everything.”
Students graduating from SAM Tech have gone on to work for top names in racing including Hendricks Motorsports and Yates Racing. Some have come to the school for CNC machining and have gone on to excellent careers in industries where component precision is critical, such as oil field, medical, and aerospace.
Faro Technologies Inc.
Haas Automation Inc.
Mastercam, CNC Software Inc.
School of Automotive Machinists & Technology (SAM Tech)